Imagine that it’s early February. The air temperature is 20 degrees but with the wind-chill factor, it feels more like minus 10. Imagine, too, that you’re 18 years old, it’s 7 a.m. and you’re walking to Sunday church services.
While this may sound like a scene from a Tolstoy novel depicting life in 19th-century Russia, this actually takes place each week at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, the Navy’s only enlisted boot camp.
Here, recruits spend eight weeks training and learning the war-fighting culture of being a U.S. sailor. This process is known as “sailorization” and Navy chaplains play an integral role in the transformational process.
In addition to conducting worship services — which really do begin at 7 a.m. — chaplains also provide pastoral counseling, stress management counseling, teach core values classes, mentor recruits and deliver messages from the American Red Cross.
Military chaplains serve, quite literally, all over the world with the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Chaplains serve onboard Navy ships and are deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They provide ministry to a demographic unlike that found in most civilian parishes — nearly half the active duty force are between the age of 19 and 24.
Military chaplains have a long history of service in the ranks of the Armed Forces.
On July 29, 1775, nearly a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress officially recognized chaplains and set their salary at $20 per month.
Chaplains have not only prayed for and with the troops, they have died alongside them as well.
From the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War, 214 chaplains have died on the field of battle and five have received the nation’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Today, chaplains act as the military’s principal agent for ensuring the free exercise of religion for America’s service members. This includes ensuring that religion is neither prohibited nor compelled on service members.
The missions and functions performed by the military today are highly specialized and require a unique set of ministry skills. Foremost, serving as a military chaplain requires one to have the ability to work in a pluralistic environment. Chaplains have a motto of “Cooperation without Compromise.”
Their role as both clergy and military officer obli-gates them to answer to their religious bodies and the institution in which they serve. While some of those served may share the same faith as the chaplain, most will have religious affiliations different than the chaplain and many will have no religious preference at all. Military chaplains provide ministry to the total institution and not only to that portion associated with their own religious denomination.
At the same time, however, chaplains must remain faithful to their governing religious body and the tenets of their faith. For effective ministry, the military chaplain must learn to negotiate the tensions between these two competing and often opposing realities.
In the Navy Chaplain Corps, we say that we provide for those of our own faith, we facilitate ministry for those of other faiths, and we care for all.
The role of the military is to fight and win our nation’s wars. In an organization dedicated to violence, the military chaplain stands as a visible reminder of the Holy.
As our young men and women continue to deploy in harm’s way, please remember the thousands of chaplains — Reserve, National Guard and active duty — who serve alongside them. Pray for our troops and our chaplains who serve them.
The Rev. Stephen Duesenberry is a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, stationed at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes. He is endorsed for military service by the Orthodox Church in America and is a native of Youngstown.